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Ministry of Health entitled to withhold information under OIA

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Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has formed an opinion that the public interest did not outweigh reasons to withhold information requested under the Official Information Act from the Ministry of Health about the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

A requester sought a broad range of clinical information provided to Medsafe by pharmaceutical companies developing COVID-19 vaccine. The requester also sought the names of members of the COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group (VAG) and the Medicines Assessment Advisory Committee (MAAC).

The Ministry of Health declined both requests, the first on the basis that providing clinical information would be likely to ‘unreasonably prejudice’ the commercial position of the suppliers. The second request was declined on the basis that withholding was necessary to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs (protection from improper pressure or harassment).

The Chief Ombudsman investigated after a complaint from the requester.

He accepted that there was a real risk of disclosing the information requested – vaccine information provided to Medsafe to enable it to assess COVID-19 vaccines for safety and efficacy for use in New Zealand, including safety trial data – would likely result in pharmaceutical companies not applying to have their medicines approved for use in New Zealand.

New Zealand was reliant on the ability to acquire medicines developed by overseas pharmaceutical companies and Mr Boshier was satisfied that releasing the information would likely damage the public interest.

There was a substantial amount of information publicly available on the Ministry of Health’s website and that met the required level of accountability and enabled public debate about vaccine clinical research.

The Chief Ombudsman did not consider that the public interest in releasing the requested information outweighed the interest in withholding it.

Mr Boshier also considered that withholding the names of the members of the two advisory groups was justified.

The Ministry of Health said staff had been abused and threatened by people who disagreed with the position taken by the ministry staff and committees. Releasing the members’ names would impact on their ability to carry out their roles and could be widely shared to people wanting to confront, target or abuse them.

The Chief Ombudsman concluded that releasing the requested information would result in staff being specifically targeted in a manner that would amount to improper pressure or harassment. He accepted this would deter staff from taking up positions on committees, prejudicing the effective conduct of public affairs.

He was not satisfied that releasing the identities of the members overrode the interest in protecting them from improper harassment or pressure.

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